By Philip Pearce
It was an impulse-buy off the Costco video table, a two-disk DVD based on a BBC documentary called “Theatreland.” Back home I found myself playing straight through the first four of eight episodes. Just my cup of tea. Just my bag of popcorn. But that’s because I belong to a peculiar minority of theater fans.
When I’ve been personally involved in a show and we arrive at opening night, I realize that, barring major mess-ups, there aren’t going to be any more rehearsals. And I feel sad. I think back to times when the stage manager has said, “Okay, Philip, we’re through with you, you can go home,” and instead I have snuck into the back row to watch the director work with other actors or with a designer or a light or sound or costume person as they cobble together the pieces of creativity, technology, equipment and economics that make theater the most collaborative of all the seven lively arts.
“Theatreland” is like those stolen moments watching somebody else rehearse or measure space for a set or hold up possible props or costume materials. And it’s why I would recommend the video only if you, like me, love the process even more than the final product.
It’s all about The Royal Haymarket, one of London’s oldest theaters, and it covers the 172 sold-out performances of a 2009 production of Waiting for Godot starring Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup, and the premiere stage version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s that moved in when the smash-hit Godot had to close.
Sure, you watch director Sean Matthias and the Godot cast moving in and honing performances they’ve tried out in a pre-London tour. But the video spends just as much time on people like two master carpenters named Tony Brunt and James Whitwell as they deal with everything from installing massive counterweights for the big flown scenery of Breakfast to a nightly check to insure the 900 century-old auditorium seats won’t crumple or buckle at the armrests. Then you watch them deal with the collapse of a dressing room ceiling, while master plumber Alan and daughter Sunny are at work on a leak in one of the gents’ loos. Another key player is an enthusiastic trainee usher named Roz, who discovers the job involves more than just selling ice cream and programs and showing people to their seats. Haymarket manager Mark Stradling drills his front of house team like Buckingham Palace Guards, with a timed emergency exercise for moving a full house out of the theater from seat to street in the eleven- minute time limit prescribed by the fire department. (The team does it in just over eight.) There’s the important reminder that front of house teams must keep an extra sharp eye out for patrons who ignore the pre-curtain no photography announcement when shows like Breakfast at Tiffany’s feature nude scenes that could hit the internet before the cast take that evening’s curtain call.
How and where do you build a massive three-story set for the Capote show and then transfer it piece by piece across London and fit it onto the classically shaped proscenium stage of the historic Haymarket? How does understudy Gareth Williams occupy his time, night after night, waiting backstage just in case somebody really does break a leg? And how does he handle it when star Patrick Stewart loses his voice and Williams finally does go on?
It’s a fascinating story about a fixed theatrical structure adapting to a pair of widely differing acting companies, a massive technical nightmare of a stage set, unexpected leaks and collapses and ticket sales to multi-thousands of British and overseas spectators.
“Theatreland” is worth viewing if you love the magic of theater but only if you also have an itch to learn how it’s planned, manned, trained, equipped and built to happen.